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When McCarthyism Hit Small-Town Vermont

Adapted from Red Scare in the Green Mountains: Vermont in the McCarthy Era 1946–1960 (Rootstock, 2018).

When I moved to Vermont in 1970, the state was in the early days of a remarkable political and cultural transformation. The “rock-ribbed Republican” place of the past was now providing fertile soil for progressives like Bernie Sanders, and liberal Democrats such as Howard Dean and Patrick Leahy. As a child of parents whose livelihoods were threatened during the McCarthy era, I became curious about how my adopted state responded to the anti-communist fear that had gripped America just a few decades earlier, culminating in a book, Red Scare in the Green Mountains: Vermont in the McCarthy Era 1946–1960. I learned that even in a relatively liberal state widely acknowledged as avoiding the worst repression and fearmongering of the Red Scare, Vermont experienced a number of red-baiting incidents during this time period. Those incidents are worth examining because they give us insight into the kind of paranoia, repression, and absurdities that characterized McCarthyism.

One of the most complex episodes of that era in the state involved the prolific poet Ordway Mabson Southard and his wife Mary. In the summer of 1950, the Southards set off a chain of events that thrust Vermont into the national news. Only a passing reference in Ordway’s 2001 obituary to their political activities (“Both were highly influenced by Marxist Socialist thought and participated in the Civil Rights Movement”) gives a clue to the events that led to headlines such as the one in the August 3 issue of the Bradford Opinion: “Reds Infest Bethel, Randolph Center, McCarthy Charges.”

Two of the most public and persistent Vermont critics of this “Red Scare” were newspapermen. Each played a vital role in defusing that episode: Robert Mitchell, who had edited the Rutland Herald since 1941 and became its owner-publisher as well in 1948; and John Drysdale, who had published the White River Valley Herald (now the Herald of Randolph) and Bradford Opinion since 1945. In 1991, Drysdale was inducted into the Community Newspaper Hall of Fame; his citation noted his role in discrediting claims that the Randolph-Bethel area was a “hotbed of communism.”

Mitchell and Drysdale were among the major figures involved in the Bethel-Randolph Center controversy, which also featured a Tibetan Buddhist dignitary, a local self-described “Red hunter,” and two well-traveled, prolific authors who, unlike Ordway Southard, were nationally prominent: the Far East expert Owen Lattimore, and the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

This incident may have had an outcome in which the forces of reason ultimately triumphed, but not before wild accusations, so representative of the time, derailed the lives of several people.

The story begins with Stefansson, renowned veteran of several Arctic expeditions (the first in 1906) and author of several books about the Far North, who first came to Bethel in 1941. He was born in Winnipeg to Icelandic immigrant parents and grew up in rural North Dakota. Stefansson took a course in anthropology while a student at Harvard Divinity School and soon transferred to that department (though never completed his degree, having been convinced by a mentor that an academic credential wasn’t necessary in the field).

The Icelandic author Halldór Laxness described Stefansson as “a poetry-loving academic, who gets up from his writing desk, wipes the ink off his fingers and becomes an Eskimo, in order to expand the boundaries of science to include the nations of the Arctic.” During the 1920s and ’30s he was based in New York City and amassed an extensive research library, open to students of the Arctic. Stefansson had difficulty adjusting to the sweltering summers of New York and started looking for property in Vermont. Shortly after his marriage to Evelyn Baird in 1941, he bought land known as the Dearing Place in the Lympus area of Bethel.

After Stefansson learned that an adjoining property, known as the Stoddard Place, was to be logged, he convinced Charlie Andersen, the first mate on his expeditions, to buy it. But Andersen left after a few seasons and Stefansson bought the property. In 1947, he and Evelyn invited their good friends Owen and Eleanor Lattimore to stay for the summer; during that time they made plans for the Stoddard Place to become a summer center of Asiatic studies.

Read entire article at Jacobin